Laying Down the Law: Charlie Benante on the hunger of Anthrax, Beyoncé’s lack of proper songs and taking flak in Pantera

Laying Down the Law: Charlie Benante on the hunger of Anthrax, Beyoncé’s lack of proper songs and taking flak in Pantera

- By Dan Franklin

The veteran drummer speaks candidly about keeping classic material fresh, doing his homework to honor Vinnie Paul and current landscape of music.

When I speak to Charlie Benante he is wearing sunglasses and sipping coffee backstage at the Corbin arena in Kentucky. It’s early – well, 11am is early for a touring heavy-metal band after a long night on the road. ‘I was woken up by the bus driver washing the bus,’ he smiles.

Whether it’s the time of day, or the success of the tour that is underway with Black Label Society and Exodus, I find Benante in an open mood, unafraid to share a few of his opinions. A hardened road warrior, 2023 finds Anthrax balancing legacy with a fanbase that is regenerating before their eyes. Long-time fans are bringing their children to the shows. Touring the UK in the Autumn, Benante was blown away by the number of young people who showed up, grabbing their post-pandemic opportunity to see the thrash-metal legends.

The current tour sees both Anthrax and Exodus leaning heavily on their thrash classics, 1987’s Among the Living and 1985’s Bonded by Blood respectively. When he looks around him onstage, Benante doesn’t see a difference in his bandmates between the attitude and love for what they do compared to the eighties: ‘We are still very hungry for this.’

But there are challenges to playing the same material every night.

‘Getting onstage and playing these songs that are decades old: How do you keep it interesting? How do you keep it fresh? How do you keep it new?’ Benante asks. ‘And there'll be some times even I feel a bit ‘ugh, this song again…’ But then I look out in the audience. And I have to remember that from last night's city to tonight's city to tomorrow’s city: this could be the first time that they've ever heard these songs. So whether or not you're feeling somewhat, "this song again..?", you have to be enthusiastic about it.’

There’s a transaction that occurs each night between Anthrax and its audience – the band trades its experience for the audience’s energy. Or maybe transfusion is a better word. The new blood in the crowd pumps new life into the older material, giving it a thrilling, addictive energy.

Nonetheless, Benante was keen to add a couple of different songs into the setlist. One was “Time”, from 1990’s Persistence of Time. He describes it as a ‘musical journey’ – a long, complex song that is the cornerstone of an album where he felt he said all he had to say with that style of eighties thrash. The other one was the brutally short “Cupajoe” from the criminally underrated Volume 8: The Threat Is Real, released in 1998. He was shot down on both suggestions, he says with a wry smile, but suggests he’d tackle guitarist Scott Ian about “Cupajoe” again that night: ‘Because I get bored. I get bored with the setlist.’

When I’ve seen the band play “Cupajoe”, it’s acted as a palate cleanser for what follows. Benante agrees that it would work well before “Only” from 1993’s Sound of White Noise, the only set inclusion from John Bush’s time fronting the band in the nineties.

‘That to me is a refreshing song,’ Benante says of “Only”. ‘I love when that song comes up on the setlist because, I don't know, it just takes you to another place. That song has a very special meaning to me. The time in my life when that song was written: everything was perfect. So the lyrics to me, they mean something. Because that was a part of my life where I was going into the nineties, and I was writing songs that were different than I was writing in the eighties.’

“Only” begins with the seemingly contradictory couplet that ‘Everything is perfect/Everything is sick’. It could be a summary of the band’s situation in the nineties. They were writing superb songs, partly inspired by the grunge movement in Seattle, but were soon squeezed by the rise of nu metal. ‘Heavy metal’ became something of a dirty term, even though Benante saw nu metal as ‘heavy metal dressed up differently’. Anthrax was adrift in a storm, riding out the nu-metal tidal wave, until the release of We’ve Come for You All in 2003, which he says was their ‘answer to it all, basically’.

Soon after, classic vocalist Joey Belladonna returned to the band. They released Worship Music in 2011, an amalgam of their eighties and nineties sound. It was a career high and Anthrax has ridden that momentum ever since. I ask Benante what his hardcore eighties self would make of him today.

‘I am guessing that he would understand that you had to adapt to a certain modernization of the music you were doing in the eighties. And maybe it was just a natural… we evolved naturally to where the music is nowadays,’ he reflects.

But just as they sorted themselves out and reclaimed their status, in Benante’s eyes the wider metal scene started to go awry.

‘I look at music nowadays as very lost,’ he says. ‘I don't know where it's going. The thing that bothers me the most about new music is that you had all this other stuff to build upon. And you completely didn't even take it. You took one element, screaming and all that other stuff. Musically, you still sound like Meshuggah. Every song that I hear sounds like a Meshuggah riff. And it's like… I just don't get it. I don't know what the fuck happened.’

Now Benante has the bit between his teeth.

‘I don't know if it's just a lack of creativity anymore,’ he continues. ‘Yeah, there's certain things that pop out here and there for me. But for the most part, I don't go back and listen to it over and over again. Once you've heard it once, you don't go back and listen to it as you used to. Why are we still talking about bands like Metallica and Slayer? I use those two bands . There's other bands that we talk about, of course. But there’s songs, and that's what we're missing nowadays: a fucking song.’

Some of this attitude might be due to Benante’s age. Remarkably, he’s sixty years old now, though he could pass for twenty-five years younger. We can’t expect veterans of the heavy music scene to love, or even get, everything that’s happening within it. However, that underestimates Benante. He may be of an older generation, but he’s physically and mentally sharp as a tack. His opinions on these things still command attention.

He then moves his sights to the wider musical landscape. According to him, the thing missing in the Top 40 is, crucially, a decent song.

‘I hate to bring up the Grammy Awards,’ he says, on a roll. ‘But somebody posted something that Beyoncé has won the most Grammys in the history of Grammys, and I thought to myself, “I don't know one fucking song.”’

Hang on a minute, I think. What about “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”? But before I’ve had a chance to mention it, he’s gesturing to his ring finger. He’s got there before me.

‘But that's because… I think the reason why we know that is because of that SNL thing that Justin Timberlake did,’ he argues. ‘I think that's what made it more mainstream. Not that she's not mainstream. And no diss to Beyoncé at all!’

Fortunately, Anthrax were always a long shot to support Beyoncé on her forthcoming world tour. By contrast, Benante professes a love of Madonna’s back catalogue and enthuses about what an exemplary songwriter she was. Madonna is a contemporary of Benante’s, so no surprise he’s more tuned into her oeuvre. As if to correct any supposition that he’s out of touch, Benante adds, ‘I could name you a bunch of Rihanna songs that I know!’

Bringing up Madonna's history also raises the question of Anthrax’s legacy, and that of thrash metal in general. In a recent New Yorker profile of Metallica, Scott Ian said, ‘Metallica are the Marines of metal. First one in, last one out.’

Anthrax weren’t far behind. The New Yorker piece and the 2019 documentary that focused on the Bay Area thrash explosion (with a refreshing focus on Exodus), Murder in the Front Row, are beginning to make sense of thrash’s broader cultural impact.

‘I mean, the thing about thrash metal – that whole movement that happened in the eighties – is it is just as important as the hip-hop music that happened in the eighties, to where it is now,' says Benante. ‘It had such a strong reaction to it, especially from white teenagers growing up. When thrash metal hit, it was as if , “This music speaks to me. This is my type of thing!” Because of the music we played, and the attitude and the look that we all had. We were just like the people who would come to see us in the audience. We didn't really dress up better than they did.’

Thrash was a parallel musical movement to hip-hop, and just as potent. Anthrax’s genius was to bring the two cultures together in their epochal collaboration with Public Enemy, “Bring the Noise”. But Benante charts a similar decline in both genres.

‘Nowadays, I think the same thing that happened to hip-hop has happened to heavy metal where it's been diluted so much,’ he says. ‘It's become something that lost something along the way. We were on this highway. And then it took a detour somewhere and I don't know why that happened. I really don't. I think maybe it just became more about look and less about the quality of the music. You know, everything that you hear nowadays is quantized. Doesn't sound human. It just sounds wrong to me.’

Of course, this was a charge made against Metallica on the release of their recent single, “Lux Æterna”. A lot of opinions were shared about how genuine its drums sounded, for one. A new Metallica album is still a major event, as is their forthcoming stadium tour. For that ever-regenerating audience it offers a precious chance to catch the originators of thrash metal when the question of how long they can continue gets stronger.

‘I don't know how much longer we're all going to be able to do this at this speed,’ admits Benante.

The Metallica tour sees Benante supporting them in another guise – as the drummer of Pantera. The reincarnation of that band has proved controversial on several fronts, but Benante’s contribution on the kit has been outstanding. I ask him what it’s like inhabiting different musical personas.

‘I mean, the Anthrax thing, I just go back into my old skin. I just get up there and it's like muscle memory,’ he says. ‘With Pantera, it's more on the grid. You know, I can't really experiment like I do in Anthrax with the Pantera thing. I'm sticking to the exact fills, the exact sticking that Vinnie would do and I play a different kit than I do with Anthrax with Pantera. The kit configuration is like Vinnie. So it's more of a challenge to me to play those songs like that. Because if I played the songs with my Anthrax kit, it just wouldn't come out right. I wouldn't feel right about it.’

When they began Pantera rehearsals last September, they taped everything. Benante went away, listened back and made studious corrections to what he was doing. He sought the advice of Gary Holt, current tour partner and guitarist in Exodus. For the best part of a decade, Holt filled in for Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, after the latter was unable to tour and eventually died.

‘I felt Gary adapted so well ,’ says Benante. ‘And more importantly, fans accepted him. Because he was Gary Holt. And it's fun to replace a member in a band that's been so established and people grew to love. And there's a certain style that goes with it. It's tough on the person coming in, of course, because you have to ask, "Am I going to be accepted? Am I hitting these things right? How much of myself do I throw into this?" So it's a little bit of a struggle, you either have to go full on, or you don't. I think Gary played a lot of Jeff’s stuff like Jeff, but he also had Gary in there too. And for me doing the Vinnie thing, I'm trying to do it as close to Vinnie as possible, because that is so much of that Pantera sound. The aggressiveness of those drums, the way they're tuned: they cut through the rest of the instruments in the band.’

The current tour has also afforded a chance to reflect with Zakk Wylde on the Pantera live shows late last year. Wylde’s job on guitar is as difficult, if not more so, than Benante’s. He brought more of his signature style to Dimebag Darrell’s riffs and solos. Benante ultimately sees music as ‘a release’ – ‘it’s supposed to make you feel good, man.’ But Wylde and Benante are resigned to the fact that they can’t please everyone – it sometimes feels like anyone – when it comes to Pantera.

‘There's one thing I noticed and it still makes me scratch my head,’ says Benante. ‘I don't think I've ever been so judged in my life by people. And I don't understand. People can be really rotten. I don't think they have the ears or the eyes that most people do, and they’re so judgmental about it. It's like, man, let it go. You know what I mean? Don't personally attack me or Zakk for something that you have inside of you. You have a problem with something. And it's like you gotta find some way that is somewhat…'

He takes a breath.

'I've been doing this for over forty years. Don't fucking judge me. If I if I didn't do my homework then fucking judge me. But I did my homework. And if something is off somewhere, is that the thing that you pick on? You don't pick on the 95% of the other stuff where pretty much I tried to stay as accurate as possible?’

He says he can talk and joke about this criticism, but it clearly stings. I ask him what is inspiring him these days. He immediately mentions Sleep Token as a ‘song-driven’ band with a good look and an air of mystery about them.

‘I like all that stuff,’ Benante adds. ‘I like the mystique. Because it takes me back to the days of Kiss when there was something there that was kind of... like I said, there’s this mystique about them. You don't know who they are. And they're creating this music that's really kick-ass.’

It’s good to hear that a warhorse like Charlie Benante, who has had so much to be grateful for and also cynical about, can find some much-needed magic in today’s metal scene. As for him, he seems content to spend the rest of the year hammering his considerable legacy into place, for all to see.

See Anthrax on the remaining dates of their 40th anniversary tour along with Black Label Society and Exodus. Get a list of dates, cities and purchase tickets - HERE

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